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After The Listening
Commentary: What Should Come after the Synodal "Listening Sessions."
Happily, the “listening session,” season of the most-synodal-synod-on-synodality-ever seems finally to be mercifully coming to an end. Many of us can only say “it’s about time.” My own experience and that of many others certainly gives enough reason for dismay. As expected, the “listening sessions” largely became an excuse to give public forums to dissident groups and aggrieved persons to publicly promote their cherished heresies and to advocate for changes to Church teaching: demands for women priests and changes in Church teaching on marriage and sexuality were very much in vogue.
As one young priest I know put it, it’s hard to see these sessions as anything other than a dumpster fire. Anytime faithful Catholics tried to object, we were told, ad nauseum, “we have to listen.” “You have to listen to everybody.” “Jesus always listened.”
And to this there is one simple answer. No we don’t. And no He didn’t.
When four men lowered their paralyzed friend through a roof at the feet of Jesus, Our Lord didn’t listen. Nor did He (immediately) give the man what he wanted, physical healing. He looked beyond what the man wanted to give him what he needed. Your sins are forgiven. It was only after this that Our Lord granted the man physical healing. Rise, take up your mat and go home.
Reading the Acts of the Apostles, one is struck by how little listening the Apostles sometimes did. St. Paul is regularly portrayed as simply walking into certain places and beginning preaching.
And, of course, some things should not be heard and not listened to. Some ideas should not be given a platform. In Ephesians 5:4 St. Paul warns us about listening to obscenity, foolish talk, or crude jokes. Custody of the ears is a traditional concept and a reasonable one. We are under no obligation to listen to persons who simply wish to use their words to attack the faith.
Yet, what is done is done. The question is: what’s next? What now? What comes after the listening?
In some circles, of course, the answer will be obvious: we try to change Church teaching to be in line with people’s desires. But there are other circles as well. Well-meaning bishops, priests, and laymen who held and went to these sessions because it seemed the best thing to do at the time. What are they, and we, now to do?
First, recognize the scope of the problem. At one listening session in my Diocese, people advocated for all the standard leftist priorities (one older woman stood up and told the group: “We want power, we want power, we want to do what we want to do!”). Greeting the bishop on the way out, I asked him, only partly in jest, “So, Your Excellency, now that you know we’re all going to hell, what are you going to do about it?”
What are any of us going to do about it? We live in the Church where vast majorities of Catholics do not believe in the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. Vast majorities of Catholics contracept, divorce, and reject other aspects of Church teaching on marriage and sexuality. Many more have not come back to Church after the covid closures. We need to recognize the size of the problem and figure out what we are going to do about it.
Next, we need improved catechesis; this, at least, came out of the listening sessions with crystal clarity. It was testified to by many who recognized they, their families, and friends, needed it. It was also testified to by many who didn’t realize how badly they needed it. Every advocate for women priests, for acceptance of divorce, for rejection of Church teaching on marriage and sexuality testified, though they didn’t realize it, to the need for improved catechesis. And that is testimony we need to listen to.
Next, we need to have to count the cost. We don’t now. We’ve made Christianity too easy. As Catholics, we need only fast two days in the entire year! Most Catholics no longer practice even meatless Fridays. Holy days of obligation are minimized or moved to Sunday, all to make it as easy as possible for Catholics. But as the sociologists know, easy religions don’t thrive. Rodney Stark, in The Rise of Christianity, showed that early Christianity succeeded precisely not in spite of the costs it imposed on its members, but because of them. G.K. Chesterton once quipped, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and left untried.” Speaking of a robust traditional Christianity, he was certainly right. But our modern Christianity asks only the minimum of its believers; it can do so no longer.
Finally, we need beautiful and reverent liturgies. Thomas Aquinas is often quoted, following Aristotle, as having held, “most men live by sense rather than by reason.” This is surely right. Human beings are creatures of imagination and sense. We are not all philosophers; the best catechesis programs will not reach huge numbers of people. But the mass reaches all comers. Its sights, sounds, smells, even feel should veritably assault the worshiper with beauty, reverence, and the idea that here, here at last, is something different, something unworldly. This is what makes the current attack on the Traditional Latin Mass and those who love it so heartbreaking. For, whatever the flaws of some in the traditional movement (and who is without them?), its adherents are some of the most faithful in the Church and its mass is centered around reverence, beauty, and fidelity.
We’ve been told we had to listen. Very well, we’ve listened. If we have also heard, then it is time now to think about what will come after the listening. It is time to commit to a way forward, to recognize the scope of the problem and to act on it. We’ve listened; now it’s time to act.
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